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When Life Becomes Art 

click to enlarge MEGAN MCQUADE
  • Megan McQuade

One fine spring day in 1955, Robert Rauschenberg climbed out of bed and decided that since things had warmed up sufficiently, he no longer needed the quilted coverlet that had kept him warm through the winter, and that he'd first acquired to compensate for the chilly nights at Black Mountain College in North Carolina the summer before. So he stretched a sheet across a rectangular frame like a canvas and pulled the quilt tight across the bottom two-thirds of the frame, leaving a draped gap, as though the bed had just been turned down for the night. He attached his pillow to the top and liberally dripped paint across the construction, making his new sculptural "combine painting" (as he called it) seem like the scene of some Abstract Expressionist axe murder.

The resulting work, succinctly titled Bed, has given rise to a nearly endless stream of critical appreciation and played a key role in dozens of academic dissertations, as befits a work now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. What's astonishing about all this is the simplicity of Rauschenberg's act - re-envisioning something familiar (and eminently useful) and transforming it through a creative act into the art object now known as a proper noun - so that his bed became his Bed.

I started thinking about Rauschenberg again while visiting P&T Surplus, on Abeel Street in Kingston, on the occasion of the latest edition of their annual "Nuts & Bolts" art exhibition. I've been a big fan of P&T since I first set foot in the place, and not even because of the art show - the place itself is an amazing visual and physical experience all on its own. According to one of the owners, Tim Smythe, Sr., one of his uncles started the business some 20 years ago by decommissioning mainframes for IBM, then selling the parts to computer geeks and parts-hungry retailers from shops on Canal Street in Manhattan. From that start, the business gradually added other merchandise, from used industrial parts and equipment to job lots of prepackaged goods being cleared out of retail stores and warehouses.

As a result of these catch-as-catch-can acquisitions, you can never quite be sure what you'll find when you visit the store. Housed in a nondescript cinder block building just off the Strand, it is stocked from floor to ceiling with such a range of stuff - from big plastic bins to copper sheet scraps to bolts in every size imaginable to used circuit boards to...well, you get the idea - that you're overwhelmed by the sheer mass of it all. Better yet, it's all organized into an endless array of bins, pegboards, and shelving units. The chaos of the wide-ranging selection is balanced by its apparent orderliness and rough thematic grouping: here's the electrical stuff, there the pipe-fitting material, over there the hinges, and so on.

Yet there's always something odd hovering nearby, a stray gauge or some inexplicable metal or plastic piece designed for what you know had to be a very specific manufacturing process - a thing that seems useful, but that now offers few clues as to what it could be used for. This is the point at which Rauschenberg, and the whole idea of art itself, comes rushing back for me. One of the founding philosophers in the field of aesthetics, Immanuel Kant ventured to define beauty as the concept of "purposiveness without purpose." To be beautiful, something has to seem like it belongs, has a reason to exist, yet in its purest sense can't actually be useful (or else we'd judge it on the basis of how well if fulfills its function). Rauschenberg made his bed into art by stretching it on a frame and hanging it on the wall. It's now a bed that can only be accessed visually and conceptually, and is no longer of much use for its more familiar purpose.

The environment at P&T created by the combination of disused hardware and its haphazard yet lovingly organized chaos is for me an unintentional temple to this kind of beauty, one in which the history, or more properly the feeling, of each individual thing makes itself manifest, in a way that is oddly similar to the charged resonance of really good artwork as you encounter it in a museum. It's quite a different vibe from, say, walking into Home Depot, where the emphasis is on a false sense of well-stocked plenitude that seeks to maximize the corporation's profit margins by streamlining the buying process. At P&T, amidst all the clutter and the fluorescent lighting and the vague scent of machine oil that permeates the place, the emphasis is on good old-fashioned ingenuity, the classic bricolage approach to making something work with whatever happens to be at hand - and as a result the place functions on a completely different level from both the monetary and (dare I say it) the spiritual economy of its big-box cousins.

P&T's unique atmosphere has led Todd Leland and Jessica Williams to curate (although that verb seems a bit high falutin') a series of annual exhibitions of junk/assemblage artwork in the store that started in 2001. But of course this is no ordinary exhibition, because, as Leland puts it, "The store is the star. The art is just the cherry on top." Submissions to this year's "Nuts & Bolts" show include an abstract sculpture by Stephen Reynolds made of metal plates, a short piece of heavy canvas, and anonymous fixtures; it was hung nonchalantly on a pegboard wall alongside packages of steel spacers, mending plates, and metal screws. Another is Will Volk's Your Neighbors, a vertically hung, off-white plastic grid filled with squares of paper bearing expressionistic, hand-drawn caricatures of various individuals. Placed next to a wall full of remaindered telephone accessories in blister packs featuring the somewhat scary repetition of exceedingly happy people on the phone, the angst-ridden expressions of Volk's Neighbors seem uncannily appropriate.

At the opening on May 1, the biggest hit was a robotic bartender built by George Devenyi, who also works part-time at the store. When a giant robotic arm turned up in the inventory, he immediately put his dibs on it, with a clear vision of how to use it for the exhibition. A Hungarian who first came here 20 years ago, Devenyi doesn't really consider himself an artist. Working odd jobs doing carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, he says that he's used to envisioning the finished product. "I can sketch out a job before I start," he says proudly, "and when it is finished, you can look at the sketch from the same point of view and see exactly the job as it is."

That sounds awfully close to the way that "real" artists work. But then again, having an artist who's not an artist showing work (in the most essential sense of that term) in an art exhibition that's upstaged by its hardware store setting - that sounds just about right to me in the end.

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  • Beth E. Wilson on P&T Surplus in Kingston.


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